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The Return Of Klezmer


Klezmer music may not be something you think you recognize right away. You may even consider it downright esoteric, something that wheezes and squeaks out of an arts cubbyhole in Venice. But klezmer is part of us, without our knowing it. Klezmer has lodged itself in jazz. Klezmer was the musical staple of the old Betty Boop cartoons. Klezmer is the music Hollywood film makers employ when they want to evoke the Middle East. In short, klezmer is as hidden and ever-present as the mythic lollocks who lick the fingers of housewives dropping their sly hands under the table after a big, lazy meal.

But no more. Klezmer music is now out of the closet (as it's been since saxophonist Liv Liberman rediscovered it 10 years ago in Berkeley). It's even been played here in Los Angeles, although, true to the nature of the music, we didn't know it in a big way. The music whose name sounds vaguely like a detergent is on full view (or full sound) Thursday when Klezmorim, Liv Liberman's sextet, opens at Theatre West.

Klezmorim consists of a tuba, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and a set of drums. Kevin Linscott plays the trombone, and had this to say:

"The klezmers were originally a group of traveling musicians in Eastern Europe. They were like Gypsies. When their music got into the U.S. in the 1910s and '20s, it got mixed into jazz and Dixieland. There are a lot of modes, principally where there's a major tonic with a flatted second, and the resolution is a minor 7th back to the one. You hear it in the old cartoons, Hollywood movies and in songs like 'Sing, Sing, Sing.' We've sort of created a quasi-vaudeville burlesque that flows around the music. We're six performer-actors with choreography. We've been described as 'Czar Nicholas II's house band as led by Spike Jones.' "

When artistic director Terrence Shank left the Colony Theatre two years ago, the Colony was one of our principal Equity Waiver theaters. No one knew what would happen with the theater next, least of all the people who ran it. Now it has a company of 60, an artistic advisory board of six, an executive committee, a board of trustees and one managing director, Barbara Beckley--who is also an actress who gets in line to read for parts in the theater just like everyone else ("Sometimes I get them, sometimes I don't").

Alan Foster Friedman's "A Day Out of Time--Ellis Island 1906" opens Saturday. It's the second entry in this year's subscription season, and according to Beckley, a real find.

"After Terrence left, we were a little lost," she said. "There was doubt in some quarters about whether we could survive. But you only keep going if you deserve to keep going. Our horizons have broadened now. We've evolved into an eclectic aesthetic, instead of a theater that reflects one person's taste. Last year, for example, we did 'The Suicide,' which we would not have tried before.

" 'A Day Out of Time' has been produced several times, back East and in Houston. It takes place in one day at a special inquiry section on Ellis Island. The year is 1906, the greatest year of volume in U.S. immigration history. Some of those people in the inquiry office won't make that last, biggest mile of their lives. In the year of the Statue of Liberty centennial, we feel lucky to have come across this play. I can't believe nobody picked it ahead of us."

"It's a Balanced Meal I'm After" may sound like a somewhat plaintive title that has a direct link to Reaganomics, or the political philosophy that judges ketchup a food ("I'd like a filet of ketchup, please, crisp on the outside, tender in the middle, with rice pilaf and lemon on the side. And what kind of wine would you recommend to go with that?"). But the meal in this instance has a metaphorical application. Clarence Edward Driver, 22, is the author, and the fabled "Smitty" of the Deja Vu opens the play at his plant Friday.

"Driver is a film student at USC who also writes plays," said Smitty, who directs. "This is a slice-of-life comedy-drama that deals with a young man's coming out, and his discovery of AIDS, and life after AIDS. What I like about this play is its depiction of the young, and how they think of something like AIDS as awesome, unbelievable. I'm older--I know it's real. But this is not an AIDS play. It's a little about how youth has an aspect of eternity in its psyche. The piece has great humanity. There's a connection between human beings, no matter what they suffer. What happens to one happens to all."

Other openings for the week include: Thursday, "The Fantasticks" at Burbank's Third Stage; Friday, "Groundlings du Moulin Rouge," a new potpourri of improv and audience suggestion directed by Tom Maxwell; "The Wayside Motor Inn" at 21st Street Theatre; yet another resurrection of "Author! Author! An Evening With Sholom Aleichem" by the Santa Monica Playhouse and "Rank" at the Powerhouse.

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